- Published on Wednesday, 23 February 2011 18:19
- Category: Literature
Written more than a thousand years ago by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, recounts the mythological history of Iran from the first moments of creation to the Arab conquest of the Persian Empire in the seventh century A.D. Legend says that Ferdowsi composed the Shahnameh under the patronage of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, who promised him one dinar for every couplet he wrote.
But when Ferdowsi presented nearly 60,000 couplets, a flustered Mahmud offered him a fraction of his promised reward. Insulted, Ferdowsi rejected the money and returned home to the city of Tus, where he died impoverished and embittered. But his poem endured.
The Shahnameh is often compared to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and certainly it has much in common with those blood-soaked epics about gods and men in conflict with each other and themselves. Others find its literary equivalent in Milton’s Paradise Lost or Dante’s Divine Comedy, as it shares with those master works an obsession with the eternal battle between the cosmic forces of Good and Evil. But in truth, it is difficult to find another epic in any language that has had as profound an impact in shaping, and preserving a people’s identity.
For many Iranians, the Shahnameh links past and present, forming a cohesive mythology through which they understand their place in the world. It is the very core and essence of Persian identity. It’s stories and myths pulse through the veins of every Iranian around the world. In short, the Shahnameh is not just a poem; it is Iran’s national scripture. And Ferdowsi no mere poet; he is Iran's national prophet.
It is for this reason that the Shahnameh has often been used as a weapon in the historical struggle between the turban and the crown in Iran. The Pahlavi Shahs, who came to power in 1925, promoted study of the poem as a means of de-emphasizing the country's Islamic heritage and thus stripping the clerics of their ideological authority. They commissioned an official edition of the Shahnameh and compelled schoolchildren to memorize passages that emphasized the glories of kingly rule. The last Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi brazenly linked his rule to that of the semi-divine kings of the Shahnameh.
After the 1979 revolution and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the clerical regime began a vigorous campaign to cleanse the new country of its pre-Islamic past, including the Shahnameh. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini considered the book to be an offensive, even sacrilegious, text that explicitly endorsed monarchy; he discouraged public readings of it.
Today, as a new generation of Iranians struggles to define itself in opposition to a widely reviled religious regime, the Shahnameh is re-emerging as the supreme expression of a cultural identity transcending all notions of politics or piety. Yet the world that Ferdowsi conjured up a thousand years ago – a world of grotesque monsters and valiant heroes, petty kings and epic battles, love found and love lost – is one that all peoples everywhere recognize, which is why it has been such a deep influence on so many people and cultures, not just throughout Asia and the Middle East, but across the world. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Lucas, Jerry Bruckheimer – all owe a great debt to the world created by Ferdowsi. Indeed, the myths and stories, lessons and values of the Shahnameh are ones that remain as relevant today as they did a millennium ago.
By Reza Aslan, Author and Aslan Media Founder
Ferdowsi wrote only in Persian, and his history of creation ignores traditional Islamic cosmology in favor of the "pagan" creation myths of his ancient Iranian ancestors. But this should not be seen as reflecting any hostility toward Islam. As Davis notes in his introduction, Ferdowsi was a pious Muslim; his epic speaks reverently of the Prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali. Nevertheless, the Shahnameh displays an unmistakable antagonism toward the Arabs and the culture, if not the religion, they imposed on Iran. The book's first villain is an Arab — the Demon-King Zahhak, whose shoulders, kissed by Satan, sprout two voracious serpents that feast daily on the brains of young Iranian men. Zahhak is ultimately defeated by a noble Iranian peasant warrior named Feraydun, who imprisons him in Mount Damavand, where he will suffer eternally for daring to usurp the throne of Iran.
The legend of Siavash, or The Black Horse Rider, whose adventures fighting for Persia, even as he is betrayed by Persia’s kings, are captured in the Shahnameh.
The greatest warrior in the Shahnameh is the legendary Rostam. Here he fights the Deev, or Demon, in an iconic moment from the book.* Photo Credit: New York Library Manuscript collections